Over the winter break, I had a chance to read a recent release from Seal Press titled Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women, an anthology edited by partners Candace Walsh and Laura Andre. I admit to having been slightly skeptical about the book after reading the ad copy in my Seal Press catalog. The prospect of reading an entire book of essays by women who had gone from heterosexual relationships to same-sex ones seemed rife with the potential for painful and/or triumphalist narratives. Nonetheless, I am intensely interested in our cultural concepts of sexual identity and how it relates to behavior. And, as I wrote in a post last week, I’m particularly interested in the concept of sexual fluidity and the personal experience of women who identify as fluid in their sexual orientation. So when I saw this book on the “new books” shelf at my local library, I figured I’d give it a chance.
Dear John, I Love Jane, like all anthologies, is something of a hodge-podge — a characteristic you could read either as a strength (a little something for everyone) or a weakness (unevenness of writing). Depending on your feeling about personal narratives, the fact that these stories are all intensely personal and written with varying degrees of distance from the events may be discomfiting. Several submissions were written by women clearly still in the midst of coming to terms with their newfound same-sex desires, while others were writing from fifteen, twenty years down the road. One of Dear John’s strengths, I would argue is the range of ages represented here, from women in their early twenties who discovered same-sex attractions in high school or college to women in their forties, fifties, even sixties who found themselves entering into same-sex relationships following decades of living in a world of heterosexual relationships and straight privilege. While the anthology is thin on diversity on some other fronts (many of the voices seem to be situated in a middle-class, North American world), I’m impressed with the representation found here of women who speak from so many points across the human lifespan: we have women writing about negotiating relationships with college roommates, women who balanced same-sex dating with changing diapers, and one contributor who “came out” to her grown children when she sent them a copy of her end-of-life directives, in which her female partner was named as the decision-making proxy.
Despite the fact that I didn’t technically “jump the fence,” having never been heterosexually active before falling in love with my girlfriend, some part of me did resonate with many of these stories. I would argue that this is because, like the essayists in this volume, I too grew up in a heterocentric world in which — unless you had compelling evidence to the contrary — it was the path of least resistance to assume that as a woman you were destined to partner with, to fall in love with, a man. The women in these essays report feeling like frauds because they have once been with men, or because they still feel other-sex attractions even though they flourish in their same-sex relationships. Some are still searching for some incontrovertible “proof” that their same-sex feelings are authentic. I struggled with this for many years myself and still find it fascinating that we are so ready to discount as evidence the experiential knowledge we accrue concerning what we desire.
As my partner once pointed out to me, “So wait, you were having fantasies about kissing girls and you still didn’t think you might be bi?” Well, yes and no. No because we’re “reassured” in many different contexts that same-sex fantasies and desires are “normal” for straight folks, and don’t necessarily mean that you’re gay. Which I do, actually, believe. But the problem with reiterating that piece of wisdom — i.e., that what you fantasize about inside your own head isn’t necessarily something you want to leap out of (or into) bed and try with an actual flesh-and-blood partner — is that it makes the recipient of that advice feel like they can’t take that piece of personal experience, personal knowledge, as concrete evidence that their deepest selves might know a little something about what could turn them on. To tell a young woman that same-sex fantasies are “normal” for straight girls, and “not to worry” is tantamount to telling her that if those fantasies were actually real then we’d surely have a problem. Many of the essays in this book wrestle with the fallout from having learned that lesson early … and then spending a lifetime undoing it.
Several of the contributors voice sentiments similar to those which I shared on Monday concerning the pressure of knowing one’s sexual identity and desires. In “Watershed” Veronica Masen describes her uncertainty about naming her own desires: “I thought that since I lacked the sort of brazen knowledge about my sexuality that [the lesbians she knew] possessed, since I wasn’t sure, that I must, by default, be straight. That if I knew, I would know. And since I didn’t know I must not be. … Somehow I made it to adulthood without understanding that one could not know, that one could speculate and ponder but not conclude” (58). Much more poetically than I, Masen describes the cultural pressure created by the politics of identity and our popular concepts of sexual orientation that lean so heavily on innate, concrete, and discrete identities. In this world, one can be A (straight) or B (gay), but it is very difficult to claim something in the middle, or to claim you simply do not know and be taken seriously. If you fail to disclose a sexual orientation, people start guessing for you: believe me, I’ve been there. Most people seem to like fixed, knowable categories. But where does that leave those of us who are (for a variety of reasons) unable to comply with their wishes by presenting them with a tidily-packaged, explicable self? It is the externally-imposed pressure of coming up with an articulate-able identity, I’m starting to think, that is partly responsible for the ever-finer distinctions we in the queer community scramble to make between one shade of non-straight sexuality and another.
How do we present a coherent identity to the world? Many, if not most, of the contributors to Dear John thought at one point that they knew how — or simply hadn’t thought about it at all, oblivious to the need for consciously-crafted self-presentation (at least of the sexual-orientation kind) while protected by heterosexual privilege. Once they have discovered their love for another woman, they often scramble to learn strategies for translating their relationships to the outside world. One of the encouraging things about reading this anthology was seeing how many supportive friends, family members, children, colleagues, and yes even husbands, boyfriends, and exes. Many of the writers were fearful of articulating their same-sex attractions or disclosing their new relationships for fear of reprisal. Some, heartbreakingly, had their fears realized through broken family ties, pink slips issued at previously-secure jobs, and the emotional and material stress of dissolving marriages or long-term relationships with their other-sex partners. A great many, however, recount incredible acts of generosity and understanding from loved ones — including the men with whom they were, or had recently been, partnered. Rather than resorting to a “men suck” cynicism, these essays left me wondering if their authors weren’t glossing over some of the more difficult aspects of ending long-term relationships, particularly when the catalyst is one partner choosing a new lover. (Not all of the marriages, I should point out, end … some of the essays describe open relationships or continued hetero partnerships with the acknowledgment of same-sex attraction).
Overall, this is a thought-provoking book for any of us who like to think about the variety of human sexual expression, the way human sexuality is interpreted through culture, and think about the ethics of sexual relationships and behaviors.